Tuesday, 7 February 2023

The Great Fall

Not long now. Spring is coming and, with it, an influx of migrants. At least, we hope so. On the local coast here in West Dorset, decent arrivals seem a rare thing. And autumn is little better. In twenty years I can remember very, very few autumn days when the number of grounded migrants has been anything but underwhelming. My records tell me that my best Wheatear tally is 100 at Beer Head on 22nd August 2008; Willow Warbler, 60 at Beer Head on 2nd September 2005. And locally I've never seen more than three Redstarts or Pied Flycatchers in a day. Maybe I've just been unlucky, and there have been monster falls that I just wasn't around to witness, but I doubt it.

Still, this is the Southwest. Maybe things are a lot different on the east coast. Well, possibly. But I would be surprised if it wasn't a similar story there. The numbers might be bigger, but I'll bet they are still not a patch on what they once were.

An autumn Redstart. Always a nice prize.

An autumn Pied Fly. Just one is a treat.

On 3rd September 1965 I was six years and four months old, and blissfully unaware of the birdy drama unfolding that day in East Anglia. Following ten days of rubbish weather in Scandinavia during the latter part of August, things had suddenly changed. Anticyclonic conditions set in over central Scandinavia at the start of September, and the impatient birds responded instantly. There was a mass exodus.

At the same time, a curved band of heavy rain was stretched from south-east England and the Low Countries to north-west Germany. It moved slowly north up the English coast, as the cloud of migrants came south and west, being squeezed ever closer to East Anglia. On 3rd September, hundreds of thousands of birds were grounded by the weather, with an immense, unprecedented concentration in Suffolk.

The heart of the action (with thanks to Google)

Along that 24-mile stretch of Suffolk coast, an estimated half-a-million birds dropped out of the sky on 3rd September. Early the next day, at Walberswick, one observer (D. J. Pearson) estimated the following along two miles of coast: 15,000 Redstarts, 8,000 Wheatears, 4,000 Pied Flycatchers, 3,000 Garden Warblers, 1,500 Whinchats, 1,500 Tree Pipits, 1,000 Willow Warblers, 500 Whitethroats, and smaller numbers of Spotted Flycatchers and Robins. Oh, and not to mention at least 40 Wrynecks, 20 Ring Ouzels, 20 Bluethroats, a Great Reed Warbler, an Icterine Warbler and two Barred Warblers. Is it worth mentioning the glut of waders too, including a Kentish Plover and three Temminck's Stints? Probably.

At Minsmere, observations by  H. E. Axell (the warden) and colleagues over approximately 150 acres of the reserve on 3rd were equally staggering. The arrival began very suddenly at 12:15, just after the wind had freshened from the south-east, and birds were still trickling in come the evening. Again, numbers had to be approximate, but 7,000 Redstarts, 4,000 Wheatears, 2,000 Garden Warblers, 1,500 Pied Flycatchers, 750 Whinchats and 500 Willow Warblers are hard to count. Rarer birds included 25 Wrynecks, 25 Bluethroats, two Icterine Warblers, ten Red-backed Shrikes, three Ortolans and a Tawny Pipit.

At Covehithe the fall was estimated at a density of approximately 100 birds per acre, which closely matches the Minsmere figures. And it is this description of bird density that allows me to get some sort of handle on the frankly incredible numbers...

A regulation soccer pitch is not far off two acres, so we're talking almost 200 migrants per soccer pitch. If that's hard to visualise, try 16 migrants per penalty far as the eye can see! I don't know the Suffolk coast very well, but can certainly picture the walk out to the old lifeboat station on Blakeney Point, a bit more than three miles from the Cley beach car park. Though the Norfolk coast didn't get more than a tiny fraction of the birds, just indulge me for a moment. Imagine that shingly slog being decorated with migrants at the kind of density seen in Suffolk. Extrapolating Mr Pearson's Walberswick counts, you would wind up with c23,000 Redstarts,, ridiculous, isn't it?!

Half-a-million birds over a 24-mile stretch of coast is one bird every three inches, or 7.5 cm. Mind officially blown...

Incidentally, it wasn't just Suffolk that experienced this fall, though it had by far the biggest numbers. For a jaw-dropping read I do recommend the British Birds paper on the event. Entitled 'The great immigration of early September 1965', you can find it in BB Vol 59, no 9 (September 1966).

Sadly, after reading that paper, you are left with the overwhelming sense that this can never, ever happen again. There simply are not enough birds any more.


  1. Gav, I first read about this event in Eric Hosking's 'An Eye for a Bird'. A mere eight years after it happened. That sense of diminishing returns is a factor I find quite unsettling.

    1. Reckon I probably first learned of it from the same source, Ric. And yes, shifting baseline syndrome has probably led to many birders being delighted with a handful of Redstarts in an autumn, instead of horrified...

  2. Truly epic, Ive read that BB account and DimWallace's account before. I am very familiar with that exact stretch of coast line, at that time of year, and I have not had a sniff anything more than an odd Redstart or Wheatear. Its amazing that in that lot there were no Greenish Warblers. Over the last 30 years on our coast numbers are a shadow of what they were. Days with 50 Pied Flys on Holy Island are gone, yet each year we still hope, like Grey Friars Bobby guarding his masters grave in the forlorn hope he will return. ...

    1. A single Greenish at Bamburgh on 4th is the only one mentioned, I think.

      Although the sheer numbers in '65 were unprecedented, it is interesting to note from the BB paper that big 'drift falls' were apparently quite common in postwar years. Even in the very early '80s I can recall one or two N Norfolk visits with lots of common migrants. Nowadays I am quite excited to see one Redstart! Something pretty awful has happened.

  3. The UK was short of native birds around that time due to the '63 winter so, such an influx must have seemed almost biblical. But the world is going through a crisis, anyone with a memory and decent observational skills can see it. Convincing the ruling types is the biggest problem of all.

  4. I’ve been out of birding for the best part of 30 years (new wife, kids, new job etc) and have been amazed at the changes in populations on my return. Apart from generally a lot less birds, Dorset now has large populations of birds that were pretty scarce in the 90’s, with big populations that I had only seen a couple of at the time (Med Gulls at Portland Harbour was a bit of a shock!).

    1. Wow, yes, a lot of changes in 30 years! I had a quiet spell in the '90s, and on into the early noughties. Moved from London area to East Devon in December 2002, where multiple Little Egrets an everyday sight. That was a surprise. But nothing compared to the Med Gull explosion!